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Happy Thesaurus Day!

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Forget weight loss and penny-pinching, make a resolution to keep this year a little more unconventional. What better way to start than with a few offbeat holidays and anniversaries you can easily observe?

1. January 1: First Foot Day

A Scottish New Year tradition, the first person to step into someone’s home is called the “first-footer” and is thought to represent good fortune entering the household—in the form of gifts including coal, whiskey, cash, and/or cheese and bread. Sorry ladies and blond men—in order to be considered lucky the first-footer should always be a dark-haired man.

2. January 1: 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation

On this date in 1863, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln signed this famous document proclaiming to the Executive Branch of government that all enslaved in Confederate territory were now free.

3. January 3: Fruitcake Toss Day

Although it may sound like a culinary Olympic event, Fruitcake Toss Day just marks the time when it is finally socially acceptable to trash all of the holiday fruitcakes you received. If you choose to turn the event into a throwing contest, make sure to have paper towels handy.

4. January 4: National Trivia Day

Here’s how we celebrated last year: 119 Amazing Facts for National Trivia Day.

5. January 4: World Braille Day


The birthday of Frenchman William Louis Braille, after whom this tactile code is named, doubles as a celebration of his groundbreaking system which has provided greater equal opportunities for the visually impaired worldwide since its invention in 1824.

6. January 7: 225th Anniversary of the First U.S. Presidential Election


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In 1788, new nation and future world power the United States of America kicked off its very first Presidential election (which ended in January 1789). As a surprise to no one, except perhaps opponents John Adams and John Jay, George Washington took the race in a landslide.

7. January 8: Bubble Bath Day

If ever there were a day to relax in a bath full of aerated water or foam, today is the one. Once a thing of luxury, the effervescent bath became a kid-friendly—and more affordable—treat in the mid-20th century thanks to companies like Mr. Bubbles.

8. January 10: League of Nations Day


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The rather ill-fated predecessor to the United Nations, the international peacekeeping organization League of Nations formally came to be on this date in 1920. Though the vocal support of President Woodrow Wilson certainly helped its inception, the League quickly fell into disarray, leaving it virtually powerless to prevent World War II. In 1946, Woodrow Wilson’s dream was officially dissolved.

9. January 10: 150th Anniversary of the Underground Railway


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The London Underground, a.k.a. “the Tube,” a.k.a. the transit system formerly known as the Metropolitan Railway, opened its doors in 1863, making it the first underground railway—or subway—in the world.

10. January 17: Kid Inventors Day


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The Kid Inventors Day website attributes television, water skis, earmuffs and the Popsicle to the minds of brilliant minors. Technically, the man who invented the first working television, Philo Farnsworth, applied for the patent at age 21 in 1927, but he showed an early design for his TV to his teacher at age 14. The purpose of Kid Inventors Day is to celebrate and encourage the ingenuity of children—so the Farnsworth blueprint counts!

11. January 18: Thesaurus Day

On this day in 1779, British lexicographer Peter Mark Roget was born. He is most famous for publishing The Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases (aka “Roget’s Thesaurus”) in 1852. This holiday is a day to honor, celebrate, extol, laud, praise, revere, or salute his contributions.

12. January 22: National Answer Your Cat’s Questions Day

If animals could talk, what would they say? We may never know the real answer, but January 22nd is a day to remember the thoughts and feelings of your domestic feline. Don’t worry if cat whispering isn’t your forte. Cat-oriented websites like Cat Channel offer some great icebreakers to get the conversation started. For example, “Are hairballs a common malady? What can my human do to prevent them?”

13. January 23: 56th Anniversary of the Frisbee


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After fighting in World War II, American inventor Walter Frederick Morrison returned to the States and designed what he thought would be the world’s first flying disc. After a few iterations over the course of nearly a decade, he came up with his design for the “Pluto Platter.” On this date in 1957, he sold his rights to this design to the Wham-O toy company. Later that year, Wham-O decided to rename the toy “Frisbee,” a term that came from a Connecticut pie company named Frisbie, whose empty pie tins had become ad-hoc toys.

Wham-O owns the trademark to the term “Frisbee,” so any flying disc from any other manufacturer is technically not a Frisbee.

14. January 24: Beer Can Appreciation Day


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Seventy-eight years ago to the day, the first beer was sold in cans. Since then, the beer can has become a barbecue staple, a collector’s item, and a maligned receptacle for some beer snobs. Today, pause before chugging, shotgunning, or crushing, and take a moment to reflect on what your beer can means to you.

15. January 28: National Kazoo Day

Founded by Chaplin Willard Rahn of the Joyful Kazoo Band, National Kazoo Day celebrates 162 years of this plastic or metal instrument. The organization behind the holiday, Kazoo America, hopes to one day make the kazoo “America’s official musical instrument.” They ask that you please remember the kazoo is definitely not related to the Vuvuzela.

16. January 29: Thomas Paine Day


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Thomas Paine, who was born 276 years ago on this date, became a highly influential figure preceding the American Revolution with the publishing of his Common Sense pamphlets in the colonies. After publishing another series called The American Crisis, and a little war known as the American Revolution, Paine actually returned to live in London. His revolutionary spirit could not be quelled though, and he got back into the action, this time in France. After ruffling some feathers and facing possible execution—pardon our sweeping generalization of history here—Paine returned to the United States to live out his final days.

While we don’t recommend a complete governmental overthrow, today why not honor the spirit of Paine by starting a tiny revolution of your own?

17. January 30: FDR’s 131st Birthday


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Credited by many for pulling the United States out of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt left an indelible impression on American history. He also holds the distinction of being the only American President ever to be elected four times. So celebrate!

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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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These $425 Jeans Can Turn Into Jorts
May 19, 2017
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Opening Ceremony

Modular clothing used to consist of something simple, like a reversible jacket. Today, it’s a $425 pair of detachable jeans.

Apparel retailer Opening Ceremony recently debuted a pair of “2 in 1 Y/Project” trousers that look fairly peculiar. The legs are held to the crotch by a pair of loops, creating a disjointed C-3PO effect. Undo the loops and you can now remove the legs entirely, leaving a pair of jean shorts in their wake. The result goes from this:

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Opening Ceremony

To this:

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Opening Ceremony

The company also offers a slightly different cut with button tabs in black for $460. If these aren’t audacious enough for you, the Y/Project line includes jumpsuits with removable legs and garter-equipped jeans.

[h/t Mashable]

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